Postcard from Bologna, Italy: Rampant tagging mars appreciation of street art

on the streets

Any regular followers of this blog might have noticed the uncharacteristic lack of photos of street art encountered on this trip.

Bologna has a problem. Tagging is totally out of control, marring the facades of many handsome ancient palaces lining the streets of the center of the city. At first, it can make an American feel threatened, as though ignoring warnings to turn back from an unsafe area.

But that first impression is erased quickly when one realizes the signs are false indicators of danger. Wandering was magically wonderful in this city with miles of shading arcades, and rich architectural details triumph over the inartistic scribbles.

We have enjoyed major exhibitions of street art in Portugal, Spain and Mexico, but there was something off-putting, besides the 13-Euro ticket, about the Street Art – Banksy & Co. exhibition in Palazzo Pepoli – Museo della Storia di Bologna. For one thing, there was so little of Banksy represented that having his name in the title seemed like false advertising.

But what worried me were all the teenagers crowding into an exhibition with several rooms devoted to tagging. Elevating tagging to inclusion in a museum in Bologna seemed to downright encourage its proliferation.

Bologna does try to keep tagging under control, angering street artists. According to an article by Giovanni Vimercati for the Guardian:

Last December, the mayor of Bologna Virginio Merola welcomed to the town hall a delegation of volunteers who had taken part in the “no tag” cleanup project that Bologna’s centre-left administration launched against what it called “graphic vandalism” in the city. The municipality also offers apartment building administrators a paid-for service to have graffiti removed from their edifices after this first, freebie scrubbing.

A few months later and the city is hosting the Banksy & Co show, organised by Genus Bononiae, the cultural output of Fondazione Carisbo, Bologna’s main bank foundation. The exhibition’s aim is to “understand how cities live and communicate also through an unregulated overlapping of words” sprayed on city walls and “encourage visitors to discover a new way to look at and relate to urban spaces.”

The exhibition created incredible controversy, but not for any of my reasons above. Well, except for the price tag for admission. Two of the photos below are from the Palazzo Pepoli exhibition, and the rest can be seen freely on the streets.

Take the street artist known as BLU. BLU had left his/her mark on unoccupied buildings throughout Bologna and numerous other cities, but BLU revolted at the “taking” of some of the actual walls bearing his art for inclusion in the museum. The artist was stung by the concept that something painted to be viewed freely now was confiscated and could only be seen by those who paid. BLU was so angry, in fact, that he/she enlisted a team of volunteers to cover all of the artist’s remaining murals in Bologna with gray paint. All are now lost.

Street artists rallied in support of BLU and in protest against the Banksy & Co. show by staging R.U.S.Co – Recupero Urbano Spazi Comuni (Urban Renewal Common Spaces), according to a post on the website Brooklyn Street Art. The 16,000 square-meter admission-free exhibition featured the work of numerous artists painted on walls of an abandoned industrial site ultimately slated for demolition.

The photos of these new protest works posted on Brooklyn Street Art are much more interesting with the backdrop of the crumbling buildings than the exhibits housed inside the museum. Wish I had seen those instead and saved my 13 Euros for a lunch at E’Cucina Leopardi.

A key role of art is to stimulate controversy, and both of the exhibitions certainly succeeded in doing so.

The Guardian article concludes:

Blu’s decision to erase their work exposes the inherent contradictions surrounding the reception of street art – in particular how palatable it has become to municipalities who might once have wanted to clean up graffiti but are now eager to speed up gentrification by giving their cities a cool makeover.

Davide Conte, Bologna council’s member for culture has welcomed Blu’s action as “a stimulating artistic performance that in my opinion is part of the conversation about the role of street art our city has been having over the past years.”


Postcard from Bologna, Italy: Volunteering to eat at E’Cucina Leopardi everyday

another seafood stew

At home or traveling, we tend to latch onto certain places and return to them over and over again. E’ Cucina Leopardi was our go-to place in Bologna. Our lunches there were so good, when we dined elsewhere we often wondered what the chef had dreamed up for lunch at Leopardi. And, whenever we got our checks after lunch elsewhere, we wondered why we had not eaten at Leopardi yet again.

A little off the touristy beaten path, Leopardi had a waiting line most days. Not because there are only a few tables; it is a large, cheerful, funky place with an open kitchen. Locals love it.

Okay, part of its appeal is the 10-Euro three-course lunch, with three courses meaning appetizer, first course, dessert, wine, espresso, no tax and no tip expected. Yes, there are several more expensive options and dinner is more, but we never ventured past the all-inclusive one-price-fits-us.

We’re not sure how Chef Cesare Marretti makes his magic work at this price point, but the dishes are amazingly good. A major part of it must be the limited lunch menu allowing bulk purchases of fresh seasonal ingredients. But, when it comes to flavors, there are no shortcuts taken.

While waitstaff is friendly, bear in mind there are only a few servers handling many more tables than a waiter in the United States could imagine. They have no time to linger with extensive translations and lists of ingredients. For a tourist not speaking Italian, this can make ordering challenging. There are no written menus. No choices are needed for the appetizer, but the main course requires selecting something vegetarian, maybe a meat-sauced pasta or something from the sea. We rarely understood completely what we were ordering, but we were never disappointed when the mystery was revealed on a plate in front of us.

My favorite appetizer was a light carrot flan. One day, the kitchen was cracking open major wheels of aged parmesan and placing massive chunks of it on the first-course salad. Pastas were always perfect, but the kitchen truly shines in producing intensely flavored fish stews. Liberal use of wine and olive oil obviously plays a role, as seen in the video below. Regulars clearly favored the recurring offering of a small molten chocolate cake (somehow ending up camera-shy), but, as strawberries were in season, they also figured prominently in dessert offerings.

Surprisingly, given the crowds, customers are not rushed. Often they sit and chat long after their desserts and coffee are finished.

We almost felt as though we had stumbled upon some haute-cuisine government-subsidized food program. Not only were we contentedly wining and dining for under $11, we often emerged so stuffed we did not want even a salad for dinner at home that night. We found ourselves wondering, how can we afford not to live in Bologna?

Can’t imagine if Leopardi had not been part of our month in Bologna and am very happy we did not pick the month of August to stay there: Leopardi is closed for vacation until September 4.

Postcard from Bologna, Italy: Basilica di Santo Stefano


This complex of seven intimate churches in the heart of Bologna, several of them constructed before the year 500, has been whittled down, as is my accompanying narrative.

The Basilica of Santo Stefano used to hold relics of San Petronio, the city’s patron saint who commissioned the church, but they have been reunited with his head in the Cathedral. I introduced you to the relocated relics of the Saints Vitalis and Agricola that were found here and originally were housed in one of these churches in my prior post.

At this rate, the postcards from two months in Italy will take a year to be delivered.